Natural gas, wind, and solar power are all cutting into coal’s profitability, so mining companies are looking for ways to reduce expenses, including reducing clean-up efforts. In their three-part collaboration with Grist and The Texas Tribune, journalists Kiah Collier and Naveena Sadasivam expose the ways the good state of Texas allows coal companies to bypass federal laws about land reclamation in order to save millions in clean-up costs. “Coal companies are required to restore land used for coal mining to the shape it was in before they started digging it up,” Collier and Sadasivam write. This process of reclamation is meant to return mined land to its former condition so people can farm, graze, and even live on it again. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

One article tells how a company violated its contract and federal law and ruined large swaths of a family’s 25,000-acre ranch. One looks at how the town of Rockdale pinned its hopes to an old coal mine that was not properly restored, land where supposedly “pristine lakes” are actually old waste-water pools. The other article looks at the free land the Luminant coal company gave to Sulphur Springs, in East Texas, who intends to turn it into parkland ─ except the company is trying to avoid properly removing a huge mound of toxic dirt and a large, acidic wastewater pool. Instead, they want to cover the lake with a bit more dirt, even though that has proven ineffective for containing toxins, and the city wants to let them and turn the mound, which locals call Mount Thermo, into seating for an amphitheater, and the lake into a fishing pond. An amphitheater built atop toxic heavy metals! It’s lunacy! It’s also obviously about money. The free land is worth $25 million, and leaving the mess saves the company an estimated $4 million. To sell the idea to the public, interested parties have framed the toxic mound as a “community asset,” a gift from the company. Well, isn’t that swell?

In a prepared statement, Luminant spokesperson Meranda Cohn said that the company is committed to completing restoration of the property, including addressing the high acidity at the pit. She said the mound is being left in place at the city’s request and that any implication that Luminant’s deal with Sulphur Springs was solely a cost-saving measure was wrong.

“This transformative project would benefit the people of Sulphur Springs and East Texas for decades to come,” Cohn said. “This is a great example of how a public-private partnership between the city, Luminant, and the [Railroad Commission] can be a win for all.”

In 2017, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, of which Luminant is a member, honored Maxwell for his vision, granting him its “elected official of the year” award for “leading the charge to breathe new life into this community asset.”

Not everyone’s on board with this toxic plan.

Ryan King, a biologist at Baylor University who has served as an expert witness in half a dozen federal lawsuits against coal companies, said staff concerns over the company’s reclamation plan are well founded.

“The idea of an amphitheater and having a lot of people right where you can potentially have a lot of airborne dust that is almost certainly going to contain toxic materials seems like a very risky situation,” he said. “That community is either uninformed or being misled about the potential hazards of doing such a thing.”

But Maxwell, the city manager, doesn’t see the problem. He said he trusts the Railroad Commission and Luminant will work it out, and that the company will do the right thing. “We don’t see a lot of risk there,” he said.

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